Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Book “The Swerve” a Joy.


The Swerve

The title of  Stephen Green­blat­t’s lat­est book The Swerve, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fic­tion in 2012, is a ref­er­ence to what is arguably the sin­gle most extra­or­di­nary idea human beings have every had.

It charts the life of Pog­gio, a 15th cen­tu­ry book hunter who chanced upon the only sur­viv­ing copy of Lucretius’ just­ly famed poem De Rerum Natu­ra, or On the Nature Of Things.

Aside from being a mag­nif­i­cent poem in its own right, it is also the most com­plete descrip­tion we have of the phi­los­o­phy of Epi­cu­rus, who Lucretius was a devout fol­low­er of.

Epi­cu­rus was a 4th cen­tu­ry B.C Greek philoso­pher, who became increas­ing­ly con­vinced that we fail to live our lives to their fullest because we’re paral­ysed by our fear of death. Or more pre­cise­ly, of what hap­pens to us after. So he wrote, famously:

Where we are, death is not, Where death is, we are not.

The soul, he declared, is as mor­tal as the body. And what­ev­er Gods there are would hard­ly be both­ered one way or the oth­er with what we mere mor­tals got up to here on Earth. He’d been able to arrive at these ideas because he him­self had been a fol­low­er of the 5th cen­tu­ry Athen­ian Democritus.

Plato and Aristotle

Pla­to and Aristotle

If you cut bread up into small­er and small­er pieces, the Greeks had won­dered, what hap­pens? Can you chop it up indef­i­nite­ly, into small­er and small­er bits of bread? Or is there a basic stuff, that can be chopped up no further?

It was from this that Dem­ocri­tus for­mu­lat­ed his extra­or­di­nary idea; his atom­ic the­o­ry.

Not only is every­thing made up of atom­ic mat­ter – atom is just Greek for indi­vis­i­ble. But absolute­ly every­thing in the uni­verse is made up of the same basic atom­ic mat­ter. Trees, peo­ple, the plan­ets, sand, every­thing was and is made up of the same stuff.

By con­ven­tion hot, by con­ven­tion cold. In real­i­ty, atoms and the void.

How on Earth do you look around you and log­i­cal­ly con­clude that every­thing in the uni­verse is made up of the same, invis­i­bly small but iden­ti­cal­ly indi­vis­i­ble stuff?! Before micro­scopes or tele­scopes, and with noth­ing more than your mind and a few equal­ly curi­ous con­tem­po­raries to bounce ideas off of?

It took sci­ence over two thou­sand years to catch up with this idea. And it’s hard­ly Dem­ocri­tus’ fault if John Dal­ton then used the term “atom” in the 19th cen­tu­ry to describe the wrong stuff.

Atoms can be divid­ed. They have at their cen­tre a nucle­us, and that can be divid­ed into pro­tons and neu­trons. And they in turn can be divid­ed up into the quarks that form them. So we should have saved “atom” up and used it for what we now call “quarks”.

It’s Dem­ocri­tus’ atom­ic the­o­ry that ban­ish­es super­sti­tion from our lives by insist­ing that every­thing, even our souls, are mate­r­i­al, and made up of the same, basic stuff.

But it also does some­thing else. It describes a mech­a­nis­tic uni­verse, deter­mined by uni­ver­sal laws. And a deter­min­is­tic uni­verse does not allow for free will. This trou­bled Epi­cu­rus huge­ly. And so he came up with a slight mod­i­fi­ca­tion; the swerve.

Will In The World

Will In The World

Atoms do not come togeth­er because of the laws of grav­i­ty and motion, he said. Pre­dictably in oth­er words. They swerve. So mat­ter is pro­duced ran­dom­ly. And it’s this that allows for free will.

The Swerve is Greenblatt’s fol­low up to his mag­is­te­r­i­al book on Shake­speare Will In The World. Which is not mere­ly the best book on Shake­speare, but the only one you’ll ever need to read. And this is equal­ly good.

It describes how the Mid­dle Ages was trans­formed into the Renais­sance. And it does so by giv­ing us a win­dow on 1st cen­tu­ry B.C Rome – Lucretius was a con­tem­po­rary of Cicero and Cat­ul­lus, and was admired by Vir­gil and Ovid. And on 5th and 4th cen­tu­ry B.C. Athens. Which is of course where the renais­sance came from. And it man­ages to be effort­less­ly eru­dite and glo­ri­ous­ly read­able. Read it.

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